Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pack your bags, Governor Richardson. You're (probably) going to North Korea!

Ling and Lee have been taken to Pyongyang and face possible espionage charges. I'm still angry.

New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, my choice for president last year, has earned himself a reputation as a diplomatic troubleshooter, especially with North Korea. Acting on behalf of the United States during both Democratic and Republican administrations, he has been Washington's point man with Pyongyang through some difficult matters.

This included the release of Evan Hunziker (above, in a very awkward picture with Richardson), an American of partial Korean descent who literally swam to North Korea, across the Yalu (Amnok) River from China, and got caught. (Twenty-six-year-old Hunziker killed himself the next month in Tacoma, Washington.)

So if President Obama sends his former Secretary of Commerce nominee to Pyongyang to help free the two American journalists being held by North Korea, it would be no surprise at all. The bigger surprise would be if they didn't call.

[Euna Lee (left) and Laura Ling (right)]

Though it had been reported for several days that two American journalists — Chinese-American reporter Laura Ling and Korean-American reporter Euna Lee (이은아), both of Current TV — were being held by the North Koreans, Pyongyang got around to acknowledging only today that the two reporters were "illegally intruding into the territory" of the DPRK. (Voice of America story here). They say "a competent organ is now investigating the case."

How they managed to get caught is itself an interesting story and an exercise in (perhaps foolishly) pushing the envelope. The "border" between North Korea and China is mostly two rivers, the Yalu/Amnok (압록강) west of Mt Paektusan and the Tumen/Tuman (두만강) east of that mountain. For the most part, it's not like parts of the DMZ separating North and South Korea, where a person can easily slip across by accident (I've heard of harrowing encounters from ROK citizens who were assigned to DMZ patrols in the mountains of Kangwon-do Province during their stint in the military).

So basically, where Ling, Lee, their colleague Mitch Koss, and their Chinese guide (an ethnic Korean, or Chosŏnjok) were captured, they were essentially at a river that was clearly the border. Now the actual border within the river's path may not be clear, but it would be clear that the river itself was the border. Unless they were checking the frozen river for schools of fish, they likely had no business going to the point where they had. The New York Times article explains this well:
It remains unclear under what circumstances Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee were detained. The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s leading newspaper, reported Saturday that the American television crew appeared to have crossed the river border — either intentionally or not — while trying to get a closer shot of North Korea.

Citing Chinese sources on the border, the newspaper reported that the three American journalists and their Chinese guide, an ethnic Korean, crossed the border around sunrise on Tuesday near Tumen, a Chinese border city.

The Tumen River, which forms the border, is only 20 or 30 yards wide in the area, according to human rights advocates who have visited there. Much of the river bed is dry, and the shallow water is frozen at this time of the year. It is difficult to tell where the border lies, and North Korean guards often stay hidden in bunkerlike guard posts, they said.

The two men in the group, Mr. Koss and the guide, who was not identified, freed themselves from the armed North Korean soldiers and ran back to China, while the two women were overpowered, The Chosun Ilbo reported.
So chivalry is dead, isn't it? Koss and the guide run back across the to the Chinese side, leaving the two women in the group to get captured by the North Koreans. Nice.

I pray for the safety of these women, and I hope that we can get them out without making any concessions to Pyongyang, but they have likely caused a lot of trouble for the United States (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is already involved), if not embarrassment. Like the Korean missionaries in 2007 who thumbed their noses at government warnings not to go to Afghanistan to proselytize, they did their own thing and probably made things harder for other people trying to save lives.

Patrols in the DPRK-PRC border area will likely be stepped up, making it harder for North Koreans to escape. Good job, folks. Sounds like someone else will pay because you thought you were bulletproof. (Oh, and the men aren't out of the woods either; they're being detained by the Chinese authorities.)

I'm not saying that you should not be reporting on the plight of North Korean escapees, especially the women who fall prey to evildoers on the Chinese side, but what was gained by walking those ten or twenty meters into the river border area, especially at a time of heightened tensions over North Korea's pending missile launch, when it might need a distraction or a bargaining chip? Was it worth it?

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